A close encounter with a shark is often considered the ultimate thrill for an adventure junkie. And, I was lucky enough to experience a cage dive of my own earlier this year.
Gansbaai, South Africa:
The previous evening was spent making uncomfortable jokes about Jaws (1975), and an uneasy slumber. Our dive was scheduled at dawn on a February morning, and to be conducted by White Shark Projects, known operators in the Gansbaai region that is popular for its dense great white shark population.
At the briefing area, I got into a wet suit while a big screen showed videos of sharks approaching divers in a metal cage. “Don’t worry, it is completely safe,” our motley group was assured. But, already, a few were backing out. The rest trudged out to the boat. “The visibility isn’t good today. But good news is that the shark will be a lot closer when you do see it,” informed one instructor. I wondered about his sanity levels, even as he went on to add that the frigid waters that we would soon be lowered into were, in fact, warmer than the day before.
Eager to change the topic, someone asked if this was the best place to see sharks. “Great whites swim the oceans of the world. ‘Hot spots’ are the temperate waters of south-western Australia, South Africa, California and Mexico. But yes, this is the best place to see one, or several, at a go,” was the answer.
By the time we reached the dive zone, there were a couple of withdrawals, and seasickness laid claim to a few more. “Great, more space for you,” I was told, dampening my hope of snaring a place in the middle, thus cushioned from danger (read: potential bites) on all sides.
Slowly, the cage was lowered, and sharks were attracted using a technique known as chumming (where fish is cut and bled out). The instructions were simple: “Hands and legs in at all times. When I shout ‘down’, take a deep breath, hold the cage and lower yourself.” But before we could get acclimatised, we heard, “down”. Forgetting to close my mouth after taking a gulp of air, I swallowed salty sea water.
Coming up for air, I was told that the shark was close. The couple next to me got a yelling: “Hands inside at all times. It will bite it off.” They both climbed out of the cage.
But before I gloat about getting my technique right, “down” was the call again. This time, I manage to keep my mouth closed, as something large brushed against the side of the cage. “On your side, it went under the boat,” we were told.
I didn’t see it. But before I could, the instructor screamed again. Dragging my body down, I finally got my first glimpse of a great white shark — one that thankfully didn’t have its big, pointed teeth out. It glided about magnificently in the open sea, curious about the cage, but kept a safe distance. On its heels, a couple followed — some stayed metres away; others brushed against the metal while coming in for a closer look. It didn’t feel that dangerous.
I climbed out about 20 minutes later, and while drying out on the deck, the instructor briefed me about great whites, as a few more swam around the boat. “Did you know that in South Africa it is a protected species? They are gravely misunderstood, thanks to films like Jaws,” he said.
But don’t they get used to the human interaction and being fed? “The blood is only used to attract sharks. Also, unless people see them from up close, how will you realise that this is a species worth saving?” he asked. “You should tell people this in the briefing room. It would help,” I told him. He laughed it off with, “No one listens then; they are too busy being scared. Just like you.” Myths Busted:
|Sharks are all man-eaters:
Humans are not food for sharks. The ones involved in such incidents are often hunting for similar-sized prey to humans, such as seals or dolphins.
|Sharks attack people often:
You are more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark. There were only seven shark-related human deaths in 2012 compared to around 73 million sharks killed annually by people.
|All sharks are big with lots of sharp teeth:
There are more than 400 different species, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. And not all have a mouth full of teeth for tearing flesh.
|Sharks are not important:
They play an important role in marine communities and help maintain the delicate balance of life.
|Nothing can hurt them: Sharks grow relatively slowly, take many years to mature, producing only a few offspring. They also suffer from the large and growing demand for shark fins, and the general lack of fishing regulations. |
Source: World Wildlife Fund